The annual gathering of Chabad’s global emissaries, the Kinus Hashluchim, elicits a paradox. Here is an organization that is truly international, operating even more outposts than the United States government. Chabad is not only the world’s largest Jewish educational network, it is quite simply one of the world’s largest networks period. Perhaps only the Catholic Church has a more extensive grid of schools and educational outposts. Yet, for all its internationalism Chabad continues to evince a largely parochial mentality. It is global in scope but not in outlook.
Indeed, Chabad’s continued insularity – wholly insistent on spreading Jewish observance exclusively to Jews as opposed to having Jewish ideas and values permeate the wider culture – is surprising and contradictory given the Rebbe’s universalist vision of a Messianic future. No Jewish religious leader in modern times has thought so broadly or so grandly. The mind labors to wrap itself around the breadth and scope of a personality who envisioned reshaping human history and nature as we know it. Yet Chabad often ignores the broader implications of the Rebbe’s vision in favor of bricks and mortar activism that is geared almost entirely to local provinces and communities.
Many in Chabad would take issue with this assertion. They maintain that Chabad’s global reach is proof that the movement has embraced the Rebbe’s international vision. But a truer evaluation would have us conclude that Chabad’s expansion has been almost entirely horizontal rather than vertical. Chabad has opened countless centers in innumerable places. But it has not gone higher or deeper. Its activities rather than its ideas are what have permeated the culture. People come to Chabad for its schools, its megillah readings, its communal seders, and inspired social programs like friendship circle. They rely on Chabad for summer camps for kids and Torah classes for adults. What they do not do is come to Chabad for answers as to how to curb the monumental divorce rate, heal Europe and America of its crushing debt crisis, wean materially indulged Westerners off a suffocating selfishness, or inspire politicians to rise above a toxically partisan culture. Chabad has morphed from a community of scholars offering a mystical yet practical vision of world change into a community of activists catering to personal ritual needs. No doubt this grass roots education and activism was necessary as a foundational first step and has proven wildly successful in Chabad bringing millions back to the fold and establishing a global footprint. But the exclusive emphasis on building institutions rather than disseminating ideas has begun to stifle the movement’s progress. Yes, the Rebbe was an activist and wanted all Jews to live lives committed to Torah and mitzvos. But above all else he was a scholar who sought to shape society with a transcendent, mystical philosophy of societal evolution and change.
How ironic that the Meshichists (messianic faction within Chabad,) for all their alleged lack of sophistication and single-minded focus of Messianism as being wholly encompassed in the person of the Rebbe, have still retained the vision of sweeping global change and the power of Judaism to reshape society for the better. In this respect they are, with their unshaped hats and crumpled suits, in some measure closer to the Rebbe’s kaleidoscopic vision than the hugely successful Shluchim who, with their silk ties and tightly pressed suits, seem to have somewhat abandoned that vision.
What is needed is the best of both worlds, a new and highly sophisticated Chabad push to enhance the wider culture with Jewish spirituality and shape civilization with the power of Hassidic ideas. Why is it that The Kabbalah center thinks they can influence Hollywood with Jewish mystical thought while Chabad uses Hollywood merely to raise money on telethons? Why does Chabad suffice itself with useless proclamations from world leaders at fundraising dinners – something that salves the ego of the Chabad community alone – while other Jewish movements, from reform to the Orthodox Union, seek to influence world leaders with Jewish wisdom?
What we need now is Chabad 2.0. Having succeeded, against all odds, in building an international network, Chabad must now utilize the vast influence and goodwill it has garnered in implementing the Rebbe’s vision to influence politics, culture, and the media. More than any other Jewish movement in world history, Chabad actually has the capacity to give Judaism a global voice in the marketplace of ideas.
Fixing this glaring omission will take Chabad’s best minds and indeed should be one of the focal points of this year’s Kinus. Here I would like to focus on a single thought.
Every global movement has an international hub where the spokes of the wheel meet. Catholics have the Vatican, the Muslims Mecca, and even the Mormons, who have experienced the kind of spectacular growth reminiscent of Chabad, have endeavored to transform Salt Lake City – once a sleepy desert colony- into a global pivot with the world’s largest conference center, seating 21,000 people. But Crown Heights, for all its undeniable energy and excitement, remains but a section of Brooklyn with a large, unadorned – some would say worn – central Synagogue that appeals almost exclusively to Lubavitchers. Even on Simchat Torah, its premiere annual event, you will see only a handful of non-Chabad faces in 770. And as far as the Shluchim are concerned, Crown Heights is highlighted but once a year at the Kinus. Indeed, those who have not gone on Shlichus and remain in Crown Heights are dismissed as ‘farmers,’ simpletons who have squandered their potential selling fruit or running hardware stores.
Not only is this condescension an insult to the dedicated residents of Crown Heights who distinguish themselves with outsize hospitality and outstanding Jewish warmth, it denies Chabad a single locus of spiritual pilgrimage around which Chabad’s ideas and philosophy can coalesce and from which its radiance can shine through to the wider culture. Chabad requires a highly developed world capitol, which is what Crown Heights ought to be.
To be sure, Chabad’s success is largely predicated on the Rebbe’s genius at decentralizing the movement and thus empowering each individual Shliach to manifest their unique gifts and potential. But without a thriving focal point and philosophical showcase, Chabad cannot hope to centralize its influence, create a force multiplier, or leverage its global influence to truly affect world culture.
It should be the priority of Chabad internationally to transform Crown Heights into a global center of Jewish spirituality, culture, and education, befitting a world movement. Crown Heights should be a hub attracting world leaders, leading thinkers and academics, Pulitzer-prize winning writers, cutting edge entrepreneurs, and youth who thirst for God.
The quickest way to achieve this is to create a world Jewish cultural center as part of the 770 complex. I can see a hundred million dollar fund aimed at building a conference center seating at least 5000 people that would feature weekly discussions and debates on the world’s most pressing issues with the values of Judaism and Chabad as the cornerstone. A media network should be attached to the center that broadcasts these discussions and conversations throughout the world. This would be a 92nd St. Y on steroids. That single edifice, on the corner of 92nd and Lex, has emerged as one of America’s premiere lecture venues, attracting Presidents, Prime Ministers, Supreme Court Justices, and Fortune 500 leaders. It does all this without any assistance from a global network of emissaries who have contacts in television, politics, and the arts in every corner of the globe. Just imagine what Chabad could achieve if its Shluchim collaborated with a central organ on bringing the world’s foremost thinkers and leaders to a Crown Heights conference center, creating a Jewish values-based think-tank that could change the world.
When I was at Oxford I was amazed at the power and reach of the Oxford Union. Founded by students in 1823, it leveraged the fame of the University to attract, as well as cultivate, world leaders whose participation transformed the Union into the world’s most famous debating chamber. I used the Union as my own model for creating the Oxford L’Chaim Society which similarly focused on world personalities, but this time lecturing on Jewish universalism and values-based leadership.
Chabad is eminently capable of doing the same in Crown Heights. Already, Brooklyn is being gentrified and becoming a hub of young, ambitious professionals. Crown Heights is part of New York City, the world’s financial, diplomatic, and media capitol. Crown Heights is headquarters of the world’s most influential Jewish organization, and Jews are news. With a little vision and a lot of investment, Crown Heights can be transformed into a Western place of spiritual, intellectual, and cultural pilgrimage, allowing Judaism in general and Chabad in particular to gain a seat at the table of world ideas and events.
None of this is farfetched. Indeed, it is far easier to create than Chabad’s global network, which none would have thought possible, and should take no more than five years to implement. What it requires are people of vision that accept that a global movement deserves a global capitol to showcase the philosophy and ideas that have made it preeminent.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach served as the Rebbe’s Shliach at Oxford University from 1988 to 1999 and in 2000 became the London Times Preacher of the Year. He is regularly listed by Newsweek as one of the ten most influential Rabbis in America. The international best-selling author of 26 books, he has just published “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself.” (Wiley) Follow him on his website www.shmuley.com and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.